Stop WWOOFing, Start Farming
By James Bording
At any young farmer gathering, I’ve heard the same conversation about how people got started in Agriculture play out dozens of times.
“How long have you been farming?”
“Oh about 3 years, I raised backyard chickens , I took some classes and then I WWOOFed before I quit and found the farm I’m at now.”
I’ll wince, chuckle, and ask
“Ahh, an ex-WWOOFer. How’d that go?”
[ WWOOF is an organization (also a colloquial verb and a noun) that sends people to farms through a work-trade relationship- labor in exchange for food and housing. Most people use it as a way to travel or a way to get their hands dirty. ]
At this point in the conversation, almost without fail, we turn to some of the horror stories that we both went through in our WWOOFing experiences. I’ve heard stories about bathing in a creek of dead salmon in the fall because WWOOFers weren’t allowed in the house, leaving a host farm in the middle of the night for fear of reprisal, drunken promises from hosts that were outright lies, starving in a frozen cabin because the food ration didn’t cover the caloric needs of farming, sexual harassment, cleaning the host’s hoarder mess out of his kitchen for a month before the “real” work would start (it never did), landscaping a backyard rather than farming and outright fear for personal safety. Usually there is at least one saving grace story of a lovely farm where the owners are nurturing, kind people, who are open to teaching and sharing.
We then laugh, because we made it out alive, scared, scarred and mostly stronger for the experience. I WWOOFed and had the standard mixed experience, farm exposure without training, hard work without understanding why I was doing what I was doing, and a full afternoon trying to hitchhike to the store to buy groceries.
I understand the mentality, “I had to suffer to get my minimum 2 years experience to qualify for a position on a good farm, others should too.” A brutal trial by fire that somehow “proves” you have the stuff to be a farmer. Character building. Fair compensation is a reward you get only after years of exploitation.
But in a time where we are desperate for at least one million young farmers to inherit our aging food system, why don’t we create entry points that vet, train and encourage young people to join the profession?
Farming IS tough work. Farming taxes your body, mind and spirit more than anything I’ve ever done, and I’ve worked in Silicon Valley startups and urban charter schools. In my humble opinion, there is no need to add additional hurdles to make transitioning to a career in farming sufficiently challenging.
What Farm Education COULD Be:
- Science Based Decision Making
Regenerative Agriculture requires an interdisciplinary skillset. Young farmers that seek to heal ecosystems and sequester carbon need high level science literacy that is challenging to achieve through osmosis. Modern small farmers need to grasp the foundations of botany, soil science, microbiology, sociology, physiology, mycology, forestry, hydrology, and geology to remain competitive against industrial farming methods. Research is finding that biodiversity reduces the need for expensive solutions and that building ecological systems that cycle nutrients and build fertility requires a farmer to know how to act as a scientist.
2. Planned vs. Reactionary Learning
Without farm apprenticeship or intensive training programs, the risk of learning to farm falls squarely on the shoulders of those who are least able to afford or manage the trial and error phase of growth. The rate of “drop out” in the first 5 years is astounding, so wisely choosing how you will spend those first few critical years can make all the difference in the long run. Set yourself up for success, learn from as many other farmers as you can, and equip yourself with tools and resources that will help shuttle you through the challenging years of start-up.
There are many ways to learn, and we all owe it to ourselves to discover our best mode of absorbing information. Agriculture, being the dynamic and multi-faceted profession that it is, requires a whole spread of skills and knowledge. Certainly muscle memory is an important one to learn-by-doing, and work-exchange opportunities can give you that repetitive experience that will advance you into a skilled laborer. But without the framing of why we are using this tool or that method, why we are scheduling plantings now and not later, why it is important to be efficient or change course, we are not learning the critical thinking that goes into decision making. Learning in a planned or structured environment, where thought has gone into the steps and intention accompanies field work, will allow for beginning farmers to be holistic rather than reactionary or reductionist.
3. Overturning “Right” and “Wrong?”
Any WWOOFer or WWOOF host you meet will almost certainly tell you a story of a disagreement they had over method. Farmers have developed their philosophy, values, and strategies over years of experience and the many decisions that went into crafting their farm are complex, to say the least. Often there isn’t time in the day to describe how the farmer came to the conclusion that they will or will not be using plastic mulch, and they don’t have the energy to constantly defend their position on tillage. Work exchange can give you the opportunity to learn the specifics of a single farm’s methods, but it often won’t give you exposure and understanding of other options. Working with a food producer who depends on their farm as their livelihood is a rewarding experience if you are willing to accept their direction and learn their system. It can be a tumultuous experience if you are comparing their system to what you consider to be “ideal,” when there is hardly enough time in the day to complete the task at hand, let alone experiment with alternatives.
If you are looking to enter a career in agriculture, you will be joining a group of driven, passionate, sometimes stubborn, people who struggle to carve out a niche in a world flooded with industrial ag products. Before attempting to make up your mind about a “right” or “wrong” way to do it, expose yourself to the broad spectrum of methods, familiarize yourself with different contexts and discover what your own personal context is, and find an intentional entry point that will set you up for success.
Work-exchange is primarily available to a privileged class who can afford to live without income. Student loans? Family members to support? WWOOFing is not an option. It goes beyond being exclusionary, work-exchange can take jobs away from people who need them. Farms that are able to survive solely through the use of free labor are skirting the system and making it harder for people who work in the field to find jobs. In Oregon, the Department of Labor cracked down on farms using this method of “employment” and ultimately the work-trade exchange became a liability for farms. Now, many Oregon farmers have turned to the Rogue Farm Corps, a non-profit that manages interns legally, placing unskilled beginning farmers on host farms through an internship and apprenticeship program that is structured to educate while giving hands-on experience.
I’d like to acknowledge that work-exchange can be a positive relationship, under certain circumstances. It is not always the case that these arrangements are set up to take advantage or exploit. Using your own critical thinking skills will help evaluate the opportunities you have and the expectations you and the host farm have. In our network, we know of farmers who are working towards alternative economic structures, challenging our current conventional perception of economics and labor. Some resilient farmers are searching for alternatives not as a way of saving pennies on labor, but as a way of motivating and uplifting the people on their farm in a way that empowers them and helps give more personal accountability. Work-exchange may be the only way to get in the door at a farm you are dying to learn from. And it also may be a great way to travel the world from an agricultural perspective.
Another important element of this puzzle: why is work-exchange so prevalent? How can we support farms in their start up years so that they can compensate labor- their own or others? Often, farms use free labor because the traditional models for barn raising and neighborly support networks have fallen through. Rebuilding rural agricultural communities is an essential project we must undertake if we want a beginning farmer to succeed without exploitation.
Full disclosure: I’m currently the education coordinator at the School of Adaptive Agriculture in Northern California. My job is to develop a program that takes young people who have run out of room for backyard chickens or raised beds in their backyards and provide them with the diverse skills, knowledge and mentorship to find their place in the foodshed. If you are looking to make the leap and enter a career in the food system, be smart about your entry point. Learn as much as you can, from as many diverse sources as possible, so that you will be a more resilient and successful food producer. We need you. Now.